Does lean cure variability in health care?

Oskar Roemeling*, Martin Land, C Ahaus

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
261 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to investigate the roles that employee-initiated Lean improvement projects play in health care. Lean ideas are introduced to improve flow in health care. Although variability is detrimental to flow performance, it is unclear whether Lean initiatives set out to reduce this variability and the associated buffers.

Design/methodology/approach - Longitudinal field research is combined with an exploratory field-quasi-experiment. First, a large set of Lean interventions were explored and their focus classified. Semi-structured interviews with practitioners supported the initial findings regarding the focus. Second, this study investigated whether a knowledge deficiency could explain the identified focus through a quasi-experiment in which the authors' stimulated knowledge on the roles of variability and buffers and then classified subsequent interventions.

Findings - The results reflected a narrow application of Lean, with most interventions directed at reducing direct waste. A quasi-experiment demonstrated that a small investment in knowledge enables the focus to shift toward buffers and variability issues - i.e. toward a more complete Lean approach.

Research limitations/implications - This research supports the commonly held view that there is a tendency to focus on waste. Furthermore, a lengthy experience of Lean does not guarantee interventions will focus on buffers and variability, issues with arguably a higher complexity compared to obvious waste. However, small investments in knowledge can broaden the focus of practitioners' interventions.

Originality/value - This study is one of the first to research the focus of Lean interventions through a data set spanning several years. The results are based on a unique data set covering a large number of documented Lean interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1229-1245
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of Operations & Production Management
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Health care
  • Continuous improvement
  • Lean management
  • Buffers
  • Field research
  • Variability

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